Camouflaging Test Cars


In an effort to shield their still-secret products from prying eyes, automakers testing prototype models, often in the desert and at other remote locales, have long covered the grilles and headlamps with rubber, vinyl and tape ­ the perfunctory equivalent of masks and hats. Now the old materials are being replaced or supplemented with patterned wrappings applied like wallpaper. Test cars are wearing swirling paisley patterns, harlequin-style diamonds and cubist zigzags.

Posted on November 12, 2010 at 6:28 AM34 Comments


The Guy from Munich November 12, 2010 6:59 AM

You can see dozens of those camouflage cars from BMW driving around the northern part of Munich. The BMW development area (FIZ) is located there (a huge area also called “BMW Town”). So it’s a pretty common sight for people living or working there.

Imperfect Citizen November 12, 2010 7:45 AM

Interesting article. In my part of the country they drive around in groups of 4 or more so you tend to notice them more. Almost like a prototype parade.

BF Skinner November 12, 2010 7:56 AM

Like Jay I flashed back to ship camoflage. Does it work?

I suppose in preventing particular lines of the body from being exposed to optical sensors. But by the act of applying camo the opposition knows which vehicles are the prototypes.

Aren’t there other sensors that could be used to gather that information once the target is known?

Anonymous Prime November 12, 2010 7:56 AM


Harkens back more to the fake propellors fixed to the noses of early jet engine test platforms.

Mike Harrison November 12, 2010 8:14 AM

The old camoflage methods were not drawing enough interest from the “spy” photographers,
they had to come up with new ways to attract attention, create buzz, get photo’s into the meme-stream. Paisley?!? Strictly for “girl cars” I hope, and inclusion as snapshots in the appropriate demographic media.

uk visa November 12, 2010 8:17 AM

@wiredog v funny… but less amusing when a child goes through security with blurry groin.
At that stage paranoia (I’m never sure whether it’s American paranoia or TSA paranoia) leads to the inexcusable molestation of a minor.
And talking of minors, when will adults run the TSA?

Andrew November 12, 2010 9:16 AM

Dazzle cammo was not used on ships to “avoid detection”. It made it more difficult to accurately judge speed and direction – crucial when plotting a spread of torpedoes.

John N. November 12, 2010 9:38 AM

@ UK Visa – Adults will run the TSA sometime after we actually manage to elect enough adults to Congress, which will be sometime after we’re all downhill skiing past Sisyphus.

BCS November 12, 2010 11:07 AM

My first thought was: Wow! That will make stereo photography so much easier! Now people can build 3D models with way higher resolution! (I think I’ve seen similar patterns applied to objects for exactly that reason.)

Geek Prophet November 12, 2010 11:28 AM

@ ghoti

No, I wouldn’t buy one. Not because I don’t think they are neat, but because I think that making my car distracting and confusing while trying to negotiate roads often populated by fools and drunks to be a “Bad Idea ™”.

Clive Robinson November 12, 2010 11:46 AM

@ Greek Prophet,

“I think that making my car distracting and confusing while trying to negotiate roads often populated by fools and drunks to be a “Bad Idea ™”.”

As a person who has spent one heck of a time on the saddle of a push bike on London’s roads I actually think the oposit might apply.

From my experiance the main reason fools drive the way they do is they have an over rated opinion of their abilities and usually don’t misjudge the distance but their ability to pull out in front of you etc.

Thus if they cann’t judge the distance they may well not act as rashly as they do.

The question is which one of us is more likely to be correct and how do we verify it scientificaly but ethicaly…

Bill November 12, 2010 11:46 AM

Actually, that last paragraph in the article sounds like the best idea.

“The preproduction GMC Express vans were ‘camouflaged’ as airport shuttles and plumbing company trucks,”

Clive Robinson November 12, 2010 12:10 PM

@ John N.

“…which will be sometime after we’re all downhill skiing past Sisyphus”

Having seen your somewhat eclectic C.V. I cann’t help wondering if you where just refering to the Greek Legend or Albert Camus’s philosophical essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” where he expounds his idea of the absurd and his proposition that the realisation of the absurd leads to “philosophical suicide”.

David Thornley November 12, 2010 12:23 PM

Naval camouflage schemes seem to me to fall into three purposes: to make the ship harder to detect; to make the ship look different, making it difficult to judge range or speed or direction or even type; to make the ship look like a real combat warship, by Jove! The last category is mostly occupied by Italian and USN WWII designs, often visually striking but not looking like they’d be actually useful at normal sighting ranges.

These reasons could change: in 1945, US ships in the Pacific were being painted to be difficult to be spotted by Kamikazes as fast as they could get Navy Blue paint.

Lurker #753 November 12, 2010 12:33 PM

Try the A395 in Spain, which is the “you are on a narrow twisty road of climbing turns, all different” highway from 600m ASL at Granada to 2500m+ up in the official middle of nowhere.

Every summer, driving up there, there’s a parade of unusual taped-over cars (saw my first dazzle painted one this year), rockslides partially contained by chickenwire, blind corners and the occasional crazy cyclist.

JamesB192 November 12, 2010 1:08 PM

(silly)What do the do after they peel off the last layer of shelf paper?(/silly)
On a more serious note I suppose some corporation could use espionage to justify tighter border security around their test track and maybe some sheds or radar/infared rigs to pick up any flights/hikers straying to where they might see the prototypes.

Brahm November 12, 2010 5:40 PM

It would seem that anyone with enough resources and expertise in the field (such as other auto manufacturers) could simply use any of the publicly available 2d-photos-to-3d-model software (search for “create a 3d model from photos”) to generate a model with a sufficient number of photographs from different angles (e.g. a series of photos from a shutter burst while it drives by), apply their own realistic “skins” — perhaps based on visible patches of paint — and render it like any other CGI these days. In fact, these noisy patterns would likely make it even more easy to precisely model the curves since they uniquely define the shape of the car based on how they change when viewed from different angles.

Davi Ottenheimer November 13, 2010 1:22 AM

Very soothing. I suggest they market this as the latest road-rage countermeasure.

No one will mind someone cutting in front or running them off the road when they see the peace/love paisley pattern.

Eelco November 13, 2010 1:41 PM

When you think about the number of camouflaged car spotters, I guess it is also a kind of viral marketing.

famous nobody November 14, 2010 4:19 PM

@tim, @wiredog:
re offtopic posts – why not email Bruce like any normal person would, rather than screw up the thread? He reads email, and email works surprisingly well …

Nick N November 15, 2010 12:35 AM

I thought the idea of camo was to make the object less visible? These things will get noticed MUCH more than the ones with just a black car-bra.

Roger November 15, 2010 7:58 AM

Yet another vote for Mike Harrison’s theory. This is meant to attract attention, not to avoid it. As far as camouflage goes, it is utterly useless. We are talking about cars operating on known test tracks at known ranges against known backgrounds; under those conditions, your only hope is to do the test at night with your high beams on.

jpnaz November 15, 2010 1:53 PM

I live in Arizona and regularly see test cars driving around the freeways. I think they test gas mileage during rush hour. I didn’t realize you could make money taking pictures of the cars. I will have to keep my camera ready LOL!

Paeniteo November 16, 2010 2:44 AM

@Nick N: “I thought the idea of camo was to make the object less visible?”

Generally, yes.
But in this special case, you don’t want to hide the entire object (impossible and impractical) but rather only some specific features of its appearance.

Tim November 16, 2010 11:51 AM

I work for one of the big 3, and I’ve driven camo’ed cars.

Paeniteo is right, the idea of the print is to hide specific features; like contours and character lines. They’re designed so reproduced pictures don’t have the correct depth of field to discern those details.

The vinyl and padded camo is used to obscure major new styled parts; like hoods and decklids. I’ve also seen rigid plastic used to extend the roofline. This stuff is a pain in the butt to deal with. It fits fine when it leaves the prototype shop; but it is continually removed and replaced as we work on the cars; and by the end, it is always just falling off. Dirt and grime get trapped underneath, and it’s unpleasant to work with. The camo on the hood; like the Chevy, always traps air under it as you drive; and it obscures your vision.

To Mike Harrison’s point; the goal isn’t to get people exited about the new model. Some of those prototypes are a year or more away from being on sale — and it’s difficult to sell the current model when people are excited about next year’s. The ones that are less obscured in the article , like the Mini or the Edge, were closer to going on sale.

Leave a comment


Allowed HTML <a href="URL"> • <em> <cite> <i> • <strong> <b> • <sub> <sup> • <ul> <ol> <li> • <blockquote> <pre> Markdown Extra syntax via

Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.